Media Expert Dan Gillmor: Why Journalists Must Be Activists
Dan Gillmor is a veteran journalist and the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Last week, he gave the keynote speech at the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona. His speech focused on Donald Trump winning the presidency, the threat Trump and a right-wing Congress pose to free speech, and why journalists need to be activists now.
Here are Gillmor’s remarks.
I’m glad to be here with you today in Barcelona. This is one of my favorites cities and regions, for many reasons that go far beyond the great people and food and remarkable things to see. There’s a spirit of political and economic innovation here that inspires me—and many others around the world.
It is a special honor to be at this Congress of Catalonian journalists. Journalists are among the people who inspire me the most—most of all when they’re doing their work with persistence and integrity.
I was planning to show you some slides. I was planning to talk about how far we’ve come in digital journalism, and how far we have to go to make it the thriving ecosystem our societies—and our journalists—need it to be.
But something happened this week.
America’s election has—and for once this is not an exaggeration—changed everything.
I am an American, and I love my country. I am hoping for the best. I am an optimist in the long run. But I have to be realistic. I do not expect the best, or anything even close to it, not for journalism or my country. The next few years will be, at the very least, difficult for people who believe in progressive ideals and social justice.
So I’m not going to show slides. I hope we can have a conversation about our future as journalists, and as citizens of countries we want to succeed as free and open societies.
I have three goals this morning.
First, to give you my impressions of how journalism performed during this election campaign. The short answer is that journalism failed, with some exceptions.
My second goal is to help you understand why I believe the Trump presidency could well be a turning point—a negative one—for free speech and other fundamental liberties in my country. That would have impact far beyond our shores.
Finally, I want to ask journalists—here and in America and everywhere—to be activists.
Activists for freedom of expression, among the liberties that are at the core of societies where freedom is an institution, not just a word.
Activists for media literacy, the foundation of which is critical thinking.
Activists, because if we don’t do this we’ll be helping the authoritarians and failing to serve our fellow citizens.
So how did American journalism fail in the current situation?
Our media organizations helped create the climate for someone like Trump to succeed. They’ve been selling fear for decades. For example, in America, at a time the lowest crime rates in many decades, our media have persuaded the public that the risk of being a victim is higher than ever. The risk of any individual person in America becoming a victim [of] terrorism is exceedingly low, but our media have persuaded the public that the opposite is true.
They’ve been selling mistrust for years, too—mistrust of institutions, some of which have indeed behaved badly, and in the end mistrust of themselves as well. That’s a climate made to order for demagogues.
Then, having helped make that corrosive climate, our media directly helped Trump capitalize on it. In the months before […] he became an official candidate for president, he received unprecedented amounts of free publicity from a medium that had already helped make him one of the most famous people in America. But now the help was coming not from TV entertainment shows, but from so-called “news” organizations. CNN and the other TV news shows gave Trump free, unedited airtime worth, according to one credible estimate, more than $2 billion.
And as a candidate, Trump dominated the screen and newspaper columns. His competitors got very little coverage by comparison. The coverage they did get—Hillary Clinton’s in particular—was consistently negative.
Why did TV news give Trump so much free publicity to spout his be-afraid slogans, and to lie constantly with very few corrections from the journalists until late in the campaign?
Journalists, real journalists, always know to follow the money.
Trump drew audiences, which boosted ratings, and advertisers sent money. The head of CBS, one of the U.S. media companies that profited wildly from Trump, will be infamous forever for what he said at a business conference early this year: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
This leader of business said, most infamously, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
If American journalism dies in the next few years, those words should be carved on the tombstone marking the grave.
No other candidate in recent memory understood journalism’s flaws and blind spots as well as Trump, and he took total advantage of the opening. He relied on journalists to stick with their insane system of false balance, which often takes the form of giving roughly equal weight to truth and lies, in the name of so-called fairness. And he knew they would give up easily if he kept vital information from them. When journalists asked for his tax returns—made public by every other major candidate for the past 50 years—he said no, and most journalists meekly accepted this stonewalling.
American political journalists, especially the ones from newspapers and magazines, did eventually realize that Trump was something entirely new—that as media scholar Jay Rosen put it, he was “crashing the system.” But with too few honorable exceptions, major traditional media organizations and journalists failed to respond soon and persistently enough with the only possible fix: tough journalism.
I emphasize that there was some great work. In fact, if you compiled all the excellent campaign journalism, you’d have a long list—including some work from newer online outlets—that would make you proud as a journalist. But the good stuff was swamped by the flood of mediocrity and awfulness that dominated.
I want to praise one journalist in particular. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post gave a one-man demonstration of how journalism should work. He deserves and will win a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, unless the Pulitzer judges are sound asleep when they look at his work.
The press, as a whole, was definitely asleep for the duration of an election-related scandal that was in plain sight the whole time. In American states controlled by Republicans, laws and regulations—some plainly illegal—were written to make it more difficult for certain groups—minorities in particular—to vote. This was a systematic campaign that plainly made a difference in the election (though how big a difference is not yet known). It deserved systematic, relentless coverage for years. Newspapers did some journalism along the way, but TV basically ignored it—and there was no sustained coverage except by several smaller outlets.
Think about it: a nationwide scheme by one party, designed to suppress that fundamental right and duty of citizenship—voting—and most in the media couldn’t be bothered to pay attention until the last few days.
The media’s self-destructive obsession with polls was not new. As a rule, journalists love what we call “horse race” coverage—who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s making progress, who’s not—and find coverage of actual issues too much of a bother.
Then there’s the very real failure of political journalists to venture outside their bubble and ask Trump voters why they were doing this. Yes, Trump had, and has, major support from outright racists, anti-Semites, misogynists who treat women as little more than property, and others whose views I consider shameful. But he also had support from millions of men and women in parts of the country the coastal elites hadn’t just forgotten—the elites barely knew they existed, and didn’t especially care.
For the record, I was a supporter of Clinton—this was the first time I’ve ever sent money to a presidential campaign—in part because her policies were vastly better than Trump’s, but more because I believed Trump represented such a threat.
Clinton has many flaws, and ran a poor campaign. But it seems obvious to me that journalists treated Clinton much worse than Trump until the debates, with negative story after story, mostly about the emails.
The email situation was a genuine issue. It demonstrated classic Clinton arrogance and occasional tendency to skirt the truth until there’s no other choice. But Clinton isn’t remotely in Trump’s league as a liar (who is?), and the email story simply did not merit the kind of saturation coverage it got. Nor did Clinton deserve the last-second intervention by the FBI director with his mysterious letter to Congress—grossly over-interpreted by journalists who didn’t ask tough questions of anyone but Clinton, but that’s another story entirely.
Let me add one more essential problem. Social media and the vast amount of “fake news”—websites posing as journalism—have given partisans easier ways to go around traditional journalism and create bogus or highly slanted alternative realities. Traditional journalists have done far too little to understand this phenomenon or to counter it. And social media organizations don’t seem to care.
So what happens now? I fear that Trump and the new radically right-wing Congress will be the biggest threat to American civil liberties and freedom of speech in my lifetime. I don’t think journalists paid nearly enough attention to this during the campaign.
Many liberties are in jeopardy, but I will focus mostly here on ones that involve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It is clear that Trump actually loves media—when it’s helping to promote him or his business interests. But he plainly hates actual journalism about him, and has promised to do things—and has already done some of them—that would directly and indirectly threaten what journalists do. He has sued at least one journalist not because of inaccuracies but because he wanted to punish the writer financially by forcing him and his publisher to spend money on lawyers. He’s been clear that he’ll appoint judges who might sharply restrict journalistic freedom. There is much more, but I believe it is accurate to call Trump an enemy of journalism, and now he’s in a position where he can do extraordinary damage.
Trump will control America’s intelligence services. Journalists correctly criticized the Obama administration’s misuse of surveillance (especially when directed against media people) but they haven’t thought much about what Trump will do with these mostly unaccountable powers.
The internet and democratized technology have given us a platform for free speech that is unprecedented. But technology is also giving authoritarians some of their best tools ever to clamp down on liberty.
In the context of freedom of expression, consider the possibilities. Trump is expected to call for restrictions on strong encryption, and thereby create vast insecurity for our communications—including journalists’ communications. He’s already said he wants to end network neutrality, the idea that the telecommunications industry shouldn’t be able to pick the winners when it comes to access to online content and services.
These and other positions are all threats to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to innovate in a digital world, and more.
Which brings me to my final point. Journalists have to recognize that on some issues, they have to become activists. There is no alternative.
I recognize that in many parts of this world, journalists are activists by definition—because truth-telling in repressive societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live.
In the Western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides, and violating journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” exposing injustices with the goal of of bringing about change.
Even journalists who worship objectivity should recognize that on some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover. If the president of the United States declares war on journalism, journalists are not obliged to just record his words and publish them. They are obliged to take a side—the side of freedom.
I’d argue that freedom of speech is only one of the issues where journalists who do not take activist stands aren’t doing their jobs. These issues come under larger topics at the core of our liberty, among them: freedom of expression in general, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.
Governments and corporations are attacking these core values in the Digital Age. They’re typically doing this in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience, and there’s some truth in that. But in the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re locking down more and more of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control over what we say and do.
This is a betrayal of the internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.
The choke points start with direct censorship of the internet, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I trust no one here would object to journalistic activism on this front. The New York Times was an activist several years ago when it told China it wouldn’t be intimidated by the regime’s heavy-handed media control.
I mentioned Trump’s upcoming control of America’s surveillance apparatus, and how technology is also the spy’s best tool. Wholesale spying on everything that moves has become a method for government—often working with big companies—to keep track of what journalists and activists for justice are doing.
Like most people, I do not oppose all surveillance. I do oppose spying on everyone, all the time. That goes way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes, and it harms everyone’s liberty, not just journalists’ privileges.
Surveillance chills freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance is free. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. Journalists need to actively oppose the surveillance state, if we truly believe in free expression.
Another choke point among many others is the one I mentioned earlier: the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries—and often in concert with governments—big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all.
Now, you and I helped create some of the choke points—by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized technology and communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Apple and Twitter. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.
But journalists should understand that the internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies. Facebook is increasingly arbitrary in how it edits your content. And by the way, I don’t understand why journalists keep pouring their work into a platform that is the media’s biggest financial competitor.
The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. We need to campaign for privacy from corporations, not just governments.
What else can we do? Journalists need to understand what is happening themselves, and then tell audiences about it—and more.
The Snowden revelations have convinced some journalists to pay more attention to security and, in a few cases, deploy countermeasures for themselves. We should go further. We should help our audiences do what they can to preserve some privacy, too. And we should lobby for laws restricting surveillance.
On network control, news organizations should be screaming about the telecom industry’s power grab. They should be warning the public about what’s at stake. They should be lobbying for rules and regulations that protect speech and digital innovation.
In all kinds of ways, journalists should be working to re-decentralize the Internet—both for their own sakes and the public good. Free speech starts at the edges of the networks, and ultimately that is where it is heard.
And—this is so important—we need to be spreading the concept of media literacy to everyone who will listen. This is, above all, about developing skills for critical thinking—being skeptical, using judgment, asking questions, ranging widely for information; and more. People need a refuge from the misinformation, and context to understand what is really going on.
Journalists should the leading teachers of media literacy. The ones who do journalism with integrity will be among the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll foster much more trust in their own work—and one of the things people pay for in this world is products and services they trust.
I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances when ask them to be activists; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. There is no excuse for failing to take more activist role in preserving liberty.
Journalists, and journalism, are under attack around the world. I wasn’t happy with President Obama’s harsh attitude toward leaks that assisted essential national security journalism. But we’ll probably look back on his tenure as a time of overt support for journalism compared to the Trump regime.
Core freedoms—of expression, association, and more—should be everyone’s right. Media literacy is everyone’s duty. Journalists, and journalism educators like me, have a duty to be their active defenders, and explainers.
Otherwise we’ll live in a world of choke points and control by others—and Donald Trump surely craves control. Otherwise we’ll live in a world where lies are as plausible as truth because the public that doesn’t know how to tell the difference—and based on this campaign, that’s the world Trump prefers, too.
We have to defend ourselves, and our societies, from these anti-freedom trends. We have to take stands. It’s part of our job now.
Again, I am deeply honored to be here with you. What you do matters, so very much. Journalism matters.
—Posted by Eric Ortiz